When You Work At a Museum...

So you think you want to work in a museum…

A couple of months ago, I asked you guys to help me crowd-source a museum-career-advice column. Several times a week, I get emails from people who want to work in a museum asking me how to get their foot in the door, or how to succeed in a museum career, so I thought a crowd-sourced advice column would be helpful, so now when I get asked the question I can just point to this link. And then you all gave some really great responses, and I read them all, and then I wrote the start of this piece and then abandoned it for two months because, well, I should not be dispensing advice about anything at all. Not even directions to the nearest Starbucks. It’s not because I hate my job, or because I struggle in this field. It’s because, upon reading all the responses when I asked for reader contributions to this topic, I saw a lot of consistency in how people got into the field and I share almost none of that experience. I took a really non-traditional path and may not be the best person to disseminate advice on how to get started. I have a BFA, MFA and I’m ABD, but none of my degrees are museum-specific. What I can stand in for is an example of how diverse but related fields of expertise can qualify you for a museum career. The rest is drawn from reader responses.

Also, this is probably geared toward US museums. I don’t know enough about international museum operations to say how much of this is cromulent to them. If you’re at a museum outside of the US and want to comment on that, please do, or send me an email. 

A museum career is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and frustrating endeavors you’ll ever undertake. There’s a lot of competition for a limited pool of jobs, the compensation tends to be “not great,” the hours can be killer and you’re going to end up working when you’d rather be with your friends or family. I first wanted to work in a museum when my parents bought me this VHS tape when I was 7, and I watched it over and over and over until the tape “took a nap.” My whole life plan was SET. I was going to work in a MUSEUM.

Fast forward 15 years, and I come to realize, it’s nothing like Sesame St. said it would be . Or Indiana Jones. Or The Mummy. Or The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Truth is, it’s really hard work, and almost completely unglamorous.  But damn, guys, when you see that light turn on in someone’s eyes when they really connect with an artwork, or come to a moment of clarity with history or the universe, there’s just nothing like it. Worth the blood, sweat and tears. (By the way, you will be bleeding, sweating and crying more than your position description lets on. True fact.)

 I have been working in museums for about 10 years, but do not have a Museum Studies degree. I started with a BFA double major of studio art and art history, picked up a teaching certificate, followed by an MFA in Cinema Studies, followed by an (incomplete) Art History PhD program, with the goal of a being a contemporary art curator (obviously).  I also took summer classes every year to accelerate my graduation date and did this all in 6 years, no breaks, while also working part time as a special education teacher. Putting myself through that pacing was the biggest mistake of my life, for two reasons.

  1. I burned out. Badly. Terribly. To the brink of an emotional breakdown and the nuclear destruction of a long-term relationship. To run through higher education at an accelerated pace from undergrad to PhD is incredibly hard, astoundingly expensive, and rife with uncertainty, it’s definitely not for everyone, and it came with financial and emotional costs. If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to this: think long and hard about if and how you can handle that. It’s no joke.

  2. I was doing what I was told I needed to do academically to get the job I wanted (curator), but had no actual experience doing that job to know if I’d be happy in the field. In hindsight, I needed to take more time between my MFA and PhD to focus on family and relationships, intern more, get some work experience under my belt, and figure out if I was one the right path. (I wasn’t.)

In the end, I took a sabbatical to get my head right and get some work experience. That was almost 10 years ago, and I’m still ABD. In between I accidentally landed a dream job in an aspect of museums I didn’t know I wanted, got married, and moved to the suburbs. I doubt I will ever finish that PhD.  Do I want to? Kinda, I guess. Do I need to finish that degree so I can land a museum job? Nope.

 Why not? Sheer luck, dude.

During my sabbatical, I got an entry-level job at a renowned museum, working in educational programming. As I mentioned, I used to be a special education teacher. My thing was teaching through alternative methods of material introduction (to wit, not teaching from the book).  Within a month I knew I wasn’t going back: I wanted to create learning and engagement opportunities with these primary sources I was immersed in every day, not write books or catalogues or lectures about them. I was a teacher, and I loved it, but I was convinced I wanted to be a curator. Turns out I didn’t, because I didn’t realize I could combine my love of education with my knowledge of art in another way.  Within a year, I’d been promoted twice and within two years, I had a position at one of the most well-known museums in the world. 

How? I was lucky, I was book-smart, and I worked my ass off. But I was also, for the first time, doing what I wanted to do, and I decided that a PhD program wasn’t what I wanted. Your mileage may vary, and going from undergrad to PhD might be the right move for you. It wasn’t for me. Your Mileage is Going to Vary. I can’t emphasize that enough. With that caveat in place, let’s get on to the advice.

I decided to crowdsource this post, since my experience in breaking into the field is somewhat unique. So I asked tumblr and facebook –check out the threads for all the context and full narratives. I’ll condense them as best I can here in the rest of these points.

Tumblr thread

Facebook Thread

 1. Decide if this is the life for you.

image

As I mentioned above, you’re not gonna get rich in a museum. You can make a decent and comfortable life, but there are Ramen Years. As with any field, if you’re paying your own way, you have to make a decision about how much student loan debt you can live with. Think about that long and hard, then go get as many grants and scholarships as you can if you decide to push ahead in education.

You will need a Bachelor’s degree, and most likely a Master’s degree. A PhD will make you more competitive in some areas (curatorial work, of course) but be wasted in others (you’re not going to need a PhD if you’re interested in exhibit design). Be ready to give up 1 (or all) of your weekends every month. Museum careers are rarely a flat 9-5 position. There’s late nights and weekends, and many holidays, too. You’re going to miss some time with your family and friends during those holidays and weekends and evenings. Not all, but some. Can you deal with that? I’ve seen a lot of people leave this field because it took too much time away from their personal lives, so this needs to be something you can handle. 

2. Volunteer and Intern, and do it in different places. Then do it again.

image

Volunteering and interning are invaluable ways to network, experience different behind-the-scenes job functions, and evaluate the type of museum you enjoy working at.

 The museum I work at loves to hire interns - if you’ve interned with us, you’ve already been trained on how we do things. I hesitate to call them auditions, but it’s close. But that’s a 2 way street. You’re interviewing your future here. Look at these environments critically, and carefully. If you’re unhappy, uninspired, unchallenged in an internship, put that experience in your lessons-learned bucket and try another museum. Try an art museum. Try a historic house. Try a science museum. Note what they do the same and how they differ, not just in terms of collections and exhibitions but in how they reach out to visitors, and what their mission statements are.

 If internships are not available, volunteer. Museums of all kinds, in all places, pretty much always need volunteers. Much like an internship, you can try out different aspects of the field before choosing one to focus on. Even if a position does not open up at the museum you’re volunteering/interning with, you can make connections within the industry who will refer you to job opportunities, and write you letters of recommendation. A reference from a friend at another museum goes a long way with me - I pay attention to those as much as I do to your resume. Build up that contact list and stay in touch with the people you meet along the way. Interning and volunteering will not guarantee you a job, but it will help position you to be qualified for the field, and make the connections you’ll need to find a job.

 3. Be flexible about location and the type of museum you work at.

image

Maybe your first job will be at MoMA or the Smithsonian. If so, congrats! I got lucky and was able to get an entry-level job at a well-known place and work my way up. But more likely than not, you’re going to start in a museum that you never heard of. The competition for the Big Name Museums is fierce, and jobs there do not grow on trees. A small museum that you’ve never heard of can still have a rich and vibrant collection, and be an important part of the community. Don’t overlook them. That said, taking a job at that museum may require you to move to Bumbelch, Nebrahoma to be registrar at the Museum of Dolls that Haunt Your Childhood Nightmares. Or the Clock Museum, or the Shoe Museum or something equally eclectic. Be ready to be open to that possibility, and the possibility that you may move repeatedly and frequently. Often museum jobs are temporary/term, lasting 6 months to 3 years. You may pack up and move multiple times before finding a long-term match. You may find yourself working in a city where you know no one in a state where you’ve never been. For some, that’s an appealing adventure. Others might not be OK with it. It can be a bit of a nomadic life, so decide if that suites you. 

 

4. Cross-train

image

There are some amazing Museum Studies programs out there, and due to their connections within the field and the internship opportunities you have access to, some of them have a reputation as basically feeding into museum jobs at renowned museums. But don’t stop there. Take business classes. Take marketing classes. Take all kinds of science and history classes. The first job title people think of when you say “museum career” curator. It’s always curator. There are dozens of other jobs to be done in a museum, though, and every kind of museum needs a different combination of skills. Look into Arts Administration programs. Learn web design, Photoshop, and programming languages. Take chemistry, if you’re interested in conservation. Audit classes if you need to, take them online, or through your community center or junior college. You don’t neccessarily need to get a certificate from Harvard - you just need to develop a skillset, and there are lots of ways to do that. The future of the museums lies in digital engagement, and every museum is going to need someone on board who understands what that means.

 

5. Don’t be smug

This is an important one, and something that was often repeated in the submissions people sent in. 

image

Get your job done. Get your hands dirty, chip in, and do what you can to make life easier for your colleagues. Don’t look at any task as “beneath you.” I don’t care how many PhDs you have or peer-reviewed journals you’ve contributed to: knit your bit and help out where you can. Labels need updating? Write them. Mats need cutting? Grab an exacto. See a gallery educator with a group that’s gone Lord of the Flies and the chaperones have vanished? Go track them down and help round-up the anklebiters. All work is honest work, many hands make light work, etc. etc. Some museums have large staffs with multiple departments, working like gears in a clock to keep things going. Other museums have 3 people, with 9-12 jobs each. No matter what kind you work in, carry your own weight and help others when you can. Just like you should be doing in your personal life. However, don’t over extend yourself. See the next item…

 

6. Have other interests, and remember your family and friends.

image

You will make some of the best friends of your life while working at a museum. It’s natural; some days I see my coworkers for 12, 14, 16+ hours a day and see my husband for maybe 2. Or less. The people I’ve met at the museums where I’ve worked will be in my heart the rest of my life. I love my colleagues- this silly blog was born out of a tipsy night of inside jokes (which apparently you all get despite the inside-ness).

 That said, do not let a museum become your Whole Life. This place is going to take up your nights, weekends and holidays more often than you might realize. That’s part of this game. You are going to feel a parental obligation towards your museum and your projects. You will lose sleep worrying about it. But you still need to check it at the door, and make time for your family, friends and personal interests. Read books that have nothing to do with work. Go to concerts that would never happen in your museum. Get out of there every once in a while. Take your vacation days and don’t check your email, and stay home when you’re sick. You will burn out if you turn your life over to a museum. The museum will not burn down while you’re gone, no matter what your imagination tells you.

I see this happening most often with people early in their careers, too afraid to look away from the job long enough to enjoy their own lives. And those are the people who burn out and change careers after two or three years. It’s not a long-haul way to operate. You cannot live and breathe a museum. You can only live and breath your life.  

Lastly: 

image

You can. You really really can. It’s hard work, it’s lean sometimes, but keep your head on straight and push through doubts and anxiety. It’s worth it, I promise. 

So that’s what I got for you. Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments, and add your advice for the next generation of museum professionals here.

When I found out the Met has titled their gala “Chinese Whispers.”

The 2015 Met Gala is to be called "Chinese Whispers.” 

My hot take: 

image

In case you were never a child, or are not from the US, “Chinese Whispers” is also the frowned-upon title of a children’s game (which most US kids know as Telephone).

image

Maybe the phrase is less hot button in other countries, but it’s considered quite insensitive to use that phrase in the US. Since the Met is a US museum, I get to make fun of them for this, along with the rest of the internet. 

Why was the game called Chinese Whispers, and why is that usage racist? Because back in the day, the word “Chinese” was used as a synonym for being unclear or being incomprehensible, and a “Chinese Whisper” basically means “to gossip.” Wow, what a flattering umbrella underwhich we will celebrate a culture! 

image

And there’s like, no chance, at all, that this will turn into a massive culturally insensitive sideshow, right?

image

Right. That would never happen.

Counterpoint: ”Chinese whispers” can refer to repeated tellings of a story, each one differing slightly from the previous, so that the final version has only a slight resemblance to the original. The Gala will celebrate how Chinese aesthetics have influenced art and design. 

My point: You’re celebrating cultural appropriation, not the culture. Also, why is the full title of this thing "Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion.” There are other Eastern cultures in Asia. Obviously the intent here to celebrate Chinese culture, but it’s dismissive to pretend they alone embody the culture of the east.

Counterpoint: SHUT UP 

My Counterpoint: NO YOU SHUT UP 

And so on. Because that’s how the internet works. 

PS: Met employees, are they gonna let you attend this year? 

How it feels to work with a “difficult” artist.

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

1) Get a temperamental and notoriously vicious artist to agree to a minor schedule or layout adjustment…

OR

2) wake up a sleeping, hangry crocodile without losing a limb or dying.

TRICKED YOU those are the exact same thing, and now you’re behind schedule, off track and, at best, missing a foot. 

sometimes I can’t even

That time you announced to your group that the next stop on the tour will be the museum’s period room, and someone asked if men are allowed in there, or if it was only for women. 

image

Look, guys, I have a serious job for you and that job is to get into your collections and make some adventures in this style. In my opinion you can never have to much GW (cat sound) but just go with what your heart finds. Then send them to me and I will share them here. Include citation info so we can credit the right museum, if you please.

"Shut up Phillip or I will George you" made me laugh iced tea out of my nose so try and top that.

Hugs and puppies,
WYWAAM

EDIT: several people have alerted me to the fact that these images were posted to reddit/imgur without proper attribution to their creator, @ladyhistory. Fixing that here. Also, Bravo, madam! 

forever unclean. forever unclean.

Remember that time the curator and exhibition designer decided to replace seating in the installation gallery with dozens of giant floor pillows so people could lounge in the exhibition, because that would be nice. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

And then within a week they were all infested with lice, which had also started to migrate into other parts of the museum.

and several of the staff has accidentally taken them home.

So you have to close multiple galleries while the exterminators are called in.

The lesson from all of this? 

When an unstoppable forces meets a totally fragile object…

That time a toddler ran full speed into an oil painting: 

And when the conservator came to inspect the damage: 

I’ve never really been a fan of those baby leashes that  some people use, but this submission made me reconsider my stance. 

No, sorry, this historic garment is not Haute Couture. But you are an awful person.

Anonymous Submitted: 

When there is an original striped jacked worn in Auschwitz is on display… and at a private opening a woman says “what a beautiful piece of clothing, they should have it back in production.”
So, I’ve had this submission in the queue for a couple of months, not sure how to “gif” it. I minored in Holocaust Studies and the appropriation of Holocaust stories and artifacts as a launching point for “entertainment” purposes has always been something I have found distasteful when not handled tactfully, and obviously I’m not actually capable of tact. But then this morning, a friend posted a link to this story on Facebook: 
So this is not only the random foot-in-mouth thought of an insensitive person in a museum failing to grasp the historical role of the garment she was admiring. An entire company missed the memo on not appropriating culturally sensitive imagery for profit. Writer, actor and tall person John Cleese has something to say about that. 

image

While the design elements of the Zara shirt do not mirror a camp garment, the overall similarity is unsettling. The look of the camp garments is well documented in history, as is the general look of the “Old West Sheriff” (which the article cites as the look they were trying to capture). A striped shirt alone would not have triggered that negative association in me. A plain shirt with a star on the breast would not have triggered that imagery with me. A striped shirt with a yellow star on the breast? KLAXONS.  To me, the haunting similarity of the Zara shirt to the camp garment is entirely obvious and never should have made it out of the sketching phase, while the only hint to the “Sheriff” inspiration is the embroidery on the patch (which is very difficult to see in the photo).  And of course, the Zara shirt has a stylized 6 point star, similar to, but not identical to, the Star of David. (edited for claritity)

Museums put historically significant garments on display to help us learn and teach about historical events, people and context. Fashion designers look at historically significant garments for inspiration. Both require an appreciation for the cultural context of those garments.

I don’t think that Zara produced the shirt maliciously. I do think they were incredibly ignorant. What do you all think? 

JUMP BACK!

When you tell an event planner that the event they’re planning at your 300 year old museum can’t accommodate dancing and they ask if you’re “from that Footloose town?”

I don’t have a gif for this, but it seems like a good time to bring back one of my favorite #museumdanceoff videos. 

BEEEEEEES!

When your supervisor asks you to manage a swarm of angry bees that have taken residence in a classroom until security arrives, and you’re not really sure what “manage” means in this context, so you wing it. 

Also, WTF is Security going to do in this situation? Bring in someone who can handle this. 

(PS: My uncle is an apiarist who lost many of his bees to colony collapse, so I feel kinda bad joking about killing bees, so let’s assume for the purposes of this post that we’re talking about carpenter bees or mud-bees or killer bees who will steal your lunch money, and not honey bees, OK?)